The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War
By James McGrath Morris
Da Capo Press
314 pages, $27.00
By William L. Morris
Had Arthur Miller written “Death of a Writer" instead of “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman would have been easier to watch because artists fight their demons to get in touch with their creative sides. At least that’s what the myth of the writer tells us and explains why biographies about them cut their subjects so much slack that, after reading them, it’s hard to tell the difference between right and wrong actions.
James McGrath Morris jettisons most of the minutiae necessary in a normal biography and the result reads more like a novel than a biography. The protagonist is a self-effacing writer, John Dos Passos, and the antagonist a demon-ridden artist, Ernest Hemingway. Morris lets the chips fall where they may. We see them the way their contemporaries did and it puts Hemingway in a bad light. He needs friends to soothe his fragile ego but pays them back by publicly ridiculing them in one masterpiece after another.
Both men were ambulance drivers in the First World War. They both saw war up close without participating in the killing. This enabled them to be more objective. Both knew the traditional view of war no longer applied.
The war upset Dos Passos more than it did Hemingway. Thanks to an Italian soldier standing between him and an exploding mortar, Hemingway survived a direct hit and became a war hero. He milked it for all it was worth. Story telling had to change, but war in the abstract — the way he imagined it — was still a good way to test a person’s courage.
Dos Passos not only wanted to change the way people wrote; he wanted to change the way people looked at the world that created wars.
His war novel, “Three Soldiers,” which dealt with only his second interest, showed three men being destroyed by war while Hemingway in his two war novels demonstrated how a thinly masked version of himself managed to survive. War was his emotional ATM.
Dos Passos admitted Hemingway’s books were “extraordinarily well written,” but he “kept telling himself he must be getting dough-headed for not getting (them).”
At the beginning of his career, Hemingway was befriended by Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein, even though he had almost nothing to show them. In return he parodied their writing styles in “The Torrents of Spring.” Usually a careful writer, he dashed off this book. He brazenly submitted it to Anderson’s publisher who turned it down. That freed Hemingway to send it to the editor, Maxwell Perkins, who published it, sensing that Hemingway had a better book in him.
Despite its great success, his next book “The Sun Also Rises” drank from a poisoned well. Explaining his writing method to an acquaintance as they walked behind his two best friends in Paris, he said, “I’m tearing those bastards apart.” The same man who claimed to be trying to write the “truest sentence ever written” used his books to get even for imagined hurts.
Dos Passos and Hemingway both were influenced by paintings they saw in Paris, especially how Cezanne withheld essential information, challenging his viewers to figure out what was a missing. They searched for a way to do something similar in literature, reading narratives from the King James Version of the Bible to each other.
Hemingway combined the sanctimonious tone of the King James Version and the rules learned as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star. He cut "everything he knew" from his stories.
Dos Passos wrote more, building layer upon layer in his novels. He combined Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” with James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. He used the film montage method he had learned from Sergei Eisenstein when he was in Russia and interwove newsreels, tricky camera angles and random character sketches with biographical sketches of well-known people.
Hemingway wrote one best seller after another while Dos Passos’ novels were “admired by critics but shunned by readers” as he created a disturbing picture of the world that caused the Great War. Americans thought he was unpatriotic. They had been spared the pain that Europe had endured. People in Europe were more receptive. Jean Paul Sartre called Dos Passos “the greatest writer of all time.”
The only friend who kept coming back for more was Dos Passos. He was spared Hemingway’s first attempt at character assassination when Perkins persuaded Hemingway to leave a character based on Dos Passos out of a book.
Their friendship broke down in Spain where they had gone to make a movie about the Spanish Civil War. They sided with the Communists fighting against fascist forces supported by Germany and Italy. But when a friend of Dos Passos was executed by the Communists for formulaic reasons, Hemingway told Dos Passos to get over it. It was war. Dos Passos saw the real Hemingway — a man who used war to advance his personal legend.
What happened after that is told in an epilogue. Hemingway and Dos Passos still had reasons to see each other. Hemingway needed Dos Passos because, as he told Perkins, he was "my most bitterly severe critic." Dos Passos married Hemingway’s childhood sweetheart. Then Hemingway’s lifelong struggle with his demons ended badly. And Dos Passos moved from communism to libertarianism, eventually supporting Joseph McCarthy, Goldwater and Nixon.
Hemingway had one more bullet in his rifle even after he died. His posthumous book, “A Movable Feast,” featured a character based on Dos Passos. He’s compared to a pilot fish feeding on the leftovers of the sharks of Paris. He blames Dos Passos for “corrupting him as an artist and leading [him] into the world of the rich.” According to Hemingway, Dos Passos was responsible for the bad things Hemingway did — including abandoning his wife and child. Hemingway always made himself look good at the expense of those around him. The betrayal was complete.
It’s generally accepted that each book Hemingway wrote demonstrated a diminishing power, a failure of imagination. It might be that he simply ran out of friends to pillory.
William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.